Slings and Arrows: Our Vanishing Deterrent

From a highly unlikely source comes a grave warning to those who shape U.S. defense policy. The warning: America’s shrinking fleet of nuclear-armed submarines may be visible, now or in the near future, to the Soviet Union. The source: Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who in a post-summit news conference made the following statement about prospects for verifying a possible U.S.-Soviet treaty on strategic weapons:

Our science and our technology. . .today possess the national technical means capable of verifying the presence of nuclear weapons on various naval ships, whether surface or submarines, without any actual verification or inspection on the vessels themselves.

We suggest that, if we reach agreement on [a strategic nuclear arms treaty], we could share our achievements so that the Americans.. .could see for themselves that these means help identify not only the presence but also the capacity of the nuclear warheads aboard such vessels.

Now, Gorbachev could be lying. Soviet leaders have a habit of doing that. Or, it could be that the Soviets have discovered means of detecting nuclear weapons on subs at sea without detecting subs themselves. It’s hard to imagine how, or of what use it would be as a verification device. Yet it’s possible.

But the possibility must also be considered that what Gorbachev implies is true: That the Soviet Union’s vast program to discover exotic means of sub detection — for example by tracing certain “signatures” given off by nuclear engines and perhaps nuclear weapons — has paid off.

What would this mean?

If U.S. submarines are vulnerable — emphasize the “if” — then there is a serious problem to be faced by Congress, our next president and the American people. After all, the increasing accuracy of weapons has already rendered American land-based missiles wholly naked to a Soviet surprise attack. This window of vulnerability, much debated in the 1980 election, has not been closed by the paltry Reagan deployment of fewer than 50 MX missiles, as a blue-ribbon panel headed by defense experts Fred C. lkle and Albert Wohlstetter reported early in January.

Nor will mobile missiles — which at present rates may not be deployed until the late 1990s — necessarily solve the problem. For a variety of reasons, as Senator Pete Wilson of California has argued, America may be incapable of building a truly mobile, hideable missile. Free countries just can’t hide and conceal major weapons systems the way the Soviets can. Even if they could, a fleet of scattered single-warhead missiles would have limited capabilities against the Soviet Union’s growing strategic defense system, the existence of which Gorbachev also conceded at the summit.

This in turn leaves only a handful of airborne bombers and submarines at sea as the last legs of American defense against a Soviet strike. The problem, as defense critics such as Sam Nunn and Gary Hart have made clear, is that even those airborne bombers may not be able to penetrate the Soviet’ Union’s massive air defense system.

And even if they do, bombers may not be able to knock out the hardened targets Soviet leaders seem to care most about, including the deep-underground bunkers where Kremlin leaders would go during the first minutes of any nuclear attack. The result is that America has become dangerously dependent on its shrinking fleet of submarines as an ace-in-the-hole against Soviet nuclear attack, or, more likely, Soviet nuclear blackmail.

Defense experts as diverse as Daniel O. Graham, the hawkish former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and Anthony Battista, until recently a top anti-defense aide on the House Armed Services Committee, have long attacked this state of affairs. Graham takes a more urgent view of exotic means of sub detection. In 1985, we co-authored an article for The American Spectator. The piece was based on an analysis published by the Heritage Foundation and scrubbed for errors by top Navy officials. Our conclusion: submarines may be vulnerable by any of a half-dozen detection methods “in the 1990s.”

Graham, along with such critics of sub vulnerability as physicist Robert Jastrow, would argue there is only one answer to this problem: rapid deployment of a strategic defense against nuclear attack. A defense would protect not only submarines, but also other U.S. weapons — not to mention American cities.

Battista and others say the problem can be fixed by building a new fleet of submarines. Still, he and his former boss, Armed Services Chairman Les Aspin, have warned repeatedly that America’s present generation of strategic subs are of dubious survivability. Given that those are the only subs we have, our deterrent remains vulnerable.

Solutions differ, but experts are in broad agreement that the threat is serious. Gorbachev’s comment, in fact, remarkable in itself, gives rise to an observation even more startling: No one, either in the Reagan administration or the field of 1988 candidates, has even addressed the issue.


  • Gregory A. Fossedal

    Gregory Fossedal (born 1959) is an American writer and political/economic theorist. At the time this article was published, he was a media fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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